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The results of a recent survey from Envision Utah have been referenced as a sign that Utahns don't understand public school funding. Some are pointing to that reading of the survey to make the case for raising income taxes on Utahns.

From a strategic standpoint, this makes a lot of sense. How do you convince policymakers, who have repeatedly been re-elected on a platform of protecting taxpayers from higher taxes, to take more money from taxpayers? One answer: Tell elected officials that voters are uninformed and don't understand what they're voting about.

But rather than question voters' intelligence when it comes to education funding, we should first question our own understanding of the issue, and think about the environment in which voters find themselves.

According to the survey, 71 percent of Utahns believe that K-12 education funding is too low. And yet, 50 percent of Utahns are either unwilling or unsure about their willingness to pay for education funding.

Information could be at the root of this outcome, but it is just as likely that Utahns hold serious reservations about what is happening in education.

Our public education system is at a crossroads. We must decide, through our elected leaders, whether we want public schools that are invested in the past or are investing in the future. This decision is largely one of focus.

Being invested in the past means focusing on keeping our schools firmly in their 20th century model, designed for factories and farms, not for unique individuals in a high-tech, highly collaborative world. This leads to so-called reforms that follow a familiar pattern: raise taxes, spend more taxpayer dollars, adopt centralized government education programs and keep unions happy. These ideas appease powerful political interests, but are proven failures in producing the education outcomes and academic achievement that Utahns want for their children.

Investing in the future means focusing on meeting the unique needs of children. That requires exploring the possibilities for public education in the 21st century, including innovations in teaching and technology that can unlock every child's innate desire to know and understand. It asks more of education reform — to not simply rely on money, but to entertain bold new ideas that break the status quo. It also leads to the conclusion that centralized academic decision-making is strikingly odd in a world where you can customize everything important in your life — from your diet to your doctor to your Netflix recommendations.

Utahns see many current and would-be education leaders investing in the future by embracing opportunities to promote engaged learning through innovation. But they also see these leaders and our public schools being held back by those who seem satisfied to remain invested in the past. In that situation, it is no wonder that Utahns would believe public school funding is too low, and yet be hesitant to pay more for an education system that balks at leaving behind a structure that is becoming irrelevant.

Are Utahns willing to pay more for that system when they recognize its success is being held up notwithstanding the money they invest? Not likely.

If we are serious about improving public education outcomes in Utah, then we should start asking courageous questions about our system instead of blaming voters for not understanding the issues. Are we invested in the past, or are we investing in the future? Getting the right answer to that question will have a far greater effect on positive public school outcomes than raising Utahns' income taxes.

Christine Cooke, J.D., is education policy analyst at Sutherland Institute.

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